Flags, Fans, Police and Stewards: Get it Right

By TJ

I had every intention of writing an article this week on bigotry and misbehaviour at football grounds. Some of the recent actions within Scottish grounds have been simply appalling.  I’d even approached an authority on Belfast Celtic to help with a concise history of exactly why that club closed its doors and the slide in Northern Irish league football since then as a cautionary tale of what happens when it all gets out of hand.

Two events that came to my attention since then have changed my mind however, though this remains not entirely unrelated.  While watching the Dundee vs Celtic match at the weekend there was an incident (now widely shared) where a steward confiscates an Irish tricolour flag from above an exit in the Celtic section, followed by its owner jumping down after it seconds later.

A further video shared by the jumping man shows a subsequent remonstration with police and stewards over how the incident was handled. Reports of the game seem to indicate a very heavy handed police presence at the game and claims that police assaulted fans and shouting abuse causing an unnecessarily tense environment. Ostensibly the flag was removed because it covered up an advertisement. No attempt was made to have the owner remove it before it was taken. The owner was then escorted out the stadium by police.

Maybe it was a Happy Partick’s day, they sneaked a draw at the Bairnabou

The same was action was not taken however for two flags placed by the Dundee supporters also covering advertisements.  One of these was a Hamburg flag – only relevant for later context. It would also appear other visiting fans have placed flags in that same location without them being removed. Inconsistent application of rules has been a recurring theme in Scottish football this season.

When the police become involved this is particularly important.  The principle of ‘legal certainty’ is a central requirement for the rule of law. People (in this case fans) must be allowed to moderate their own conduct without arbitrary intervention of the police.  It requires that legal implications must be foreseeable. Inconsistent application of law and rules run contrary to this. Heavy handed policing – particularly of away fans – seems to be largely ignored when it comes to trouble at football games.  It has been a generation since the serious mass violence that marred the sport.  The fans are different people with different values, yet the policing approach has remained largely similar. The recent report into policing at football made a great show of intent that police should work closer with fans organisations.

That was then immediately undermined by the Scottish Police Federation calling the Fans Against Criminalisation fans Group ‘apologists for criminality’. It is a widespread opinion among fans that policing is out of touch. The policing approach however seems to be taboo for the Scottish media to tackle and have an adult conversation about. Just maybe, treating fans as law abiding citizens until such time as they display traits to the contrary might empower them to take pride and responsibility for how they are perceived. Police can use tools now that were not available back when trouble was really flaring – among them CCTV, drones and facial recognition. In 2018, Dr Geoff Pearson, an expert in policing, crowd behaviour and sport within the School of Law at the University of Manchester, said:

“All crowd science shows positive engagement with fans and police cuts down on disorder.

“One of the other drawbacks of large numbers of police trying to manage a large crowd, is inevitably you are going to be cancelling officers’ rest days.

“That’s problematic for communities and the officer may not be in the best mood to deal with football banter.”

The second incident that caught my attention also involved the removal of an Irish tricolour but related to events occurring in 2015.  It would appear that the Junior team St Roch’s FC found themselves in hot water with the West Region Scottish Junior Football Association over supporters flying the Irish flag.

A cursory look at the history of St Roch’s would make clear that the club was formed by Canon Edward Lawton in 1920 intended to be a feeder club for Celtic.  It went on to produce players who did just that, including James McGrory, before Celtic developed their own youth system.

According to the letter grandly titled “Junior Football Against Sectarianism” produced by General Secretary J Scott Robertson, St Roch’s were threatened with expulsion from the league for the flying of Irish flags in 2015. A situation he’d attended to personally. When asked about this St Roch’s responded only that the matter was resolved amicably and they were satisfied with the outcome.

Having looked into the matter further, including contacting both the Scottish Football Association and the West Region Scottish Junior Football Association for further comment, it appears that the matter did escalate beyond the letter penned by the General Secretary culminating in a meeting with the SFA. St Roch’s FC explained their history and were advised that their fans could display any flag they wished, on the proviso it was not offensive (such as including abusive text). Reading between the lines it seems the SFA were happy to reach a sensible conclusion to a potentially embarrassing issue. At the date of going to print John Fyfe, the Assistant Secretary of the West Region SJFA had confirmed to having discussed the matter with the General Secretary (Mr Robertson) and that they would get back to me when they have all the relevant information together. The outstanding queries will hopefully clarify the above and provide exactly what was felt to be sectarian about these flags.  I will update this article as and when further information arises.

What these issues have seemed to do for the Celtic support (if Twitter is a gauge) is cause some reminiscence of the times during the 1950’s and 1970’s when attempts were made to ban Irish flags in response to episodes of fan violence.  During the 50’s famously Celtic came within one casting vote of being expelled from competition, when Rangers voted in their favour. It might well have been a self-serving vote given there is little doubt that financially they are good for each other.  It does bring things nicely around though to the issue of what flags and banners are acceptable at football matches.

Reproduced from a post by @PaulDykes on Twitter

The right to free expression is guaranteed by Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It may only be interfered with when necessary for the rights or reputations of others.  In other words to protect others from having their own Human Rights infringed.  Discriminatory slogans for example would breach that threshold. These are the same factors in play when considering whether an Orange Walk should be allowed to march past Catholic Churches for example when there seems higher risks of harm to individuals.

An Irish flag among Celtic supporters is not an incitement to cause harm.  The use of the Ulster Banner among Rangers supporters is not an incitement to cause harm.  Anyone enraged to the point of committing violent acts by their presence at a football game has problems that ought to see them as the subject of police attention. Those flags represent a deep rivalry and a slight degree of winding-up that is well within the boundaries of Article 18 and in no way justifies infringement.  You could argue that the ‘Mattress’ jibe at Morelos’ mother crosses the threshold into causing harm to a natural person and its removal more justified as harassment. I’m not saying it was; just that’s how it works, by weighing up whether on balance whether interference is justified and proportionate.

What I mean to say is that policing and stewarding in these situations needs to take stock of what the law is actually all about – allowing free expression where it does not lead to putting others at risk of harm.  From the accounts I’ve heard the policing and stewarding in Dundee failed to do that and it is by no means an exceptional case.  More harm was risked by the heavy handed policing and the stewarding action than would have been the case without them and that itself could be illegal.

It is high time that the police engaged properly with fans representatives – and by that I’d recommend Scottish Football Supporters Association (@ScottishFSA) rather than the SFA’s puppet organisation, Supporters Direct Scotland.  They have more engaged and signed up fans despite being entirely voluntary (SD is SFA sponsored) and provide an independent cross section of all supporters. They represent real fans wanting better representation without the SFA’s thumb pinning them down. Amanda Jacks (@FSF_FairCop) at FSF also does some fantastic work to help reconcile in this area and would be a welcome addition to any such conversation.

The discussion on anti-social behaviour at football so far has largely centred on what Clubs can do and whether the Government will step in.  The SFA gets off the hook because they are so ineffectual nobody believes they can change anything for the better or convince the Clubs to put their trust in them. It was the SFA after all who went after an easy target (flags) rather than confront serious societal problems and take steps to change attitudes.

It’s a sad indictment of where we find ourselves but the major impediment to any talk of strict liability is that no one trusts the SFA to run such a regime. Time we demanded better both from our game’s regulator and from over-zealous policing and stewarding.  We’re all here to enjoy the football so engage fans like any other part of society and treat each other as humans. The colour, passion, banter and noise our fans bring is what makes Scottish football feel more alive than the hollow glitz of elite level games. Our game is not facing anywhere near the sort of trouble that caused Belfast Celtic to close its doors for good after a player was grievously wounded by fans. It’s a minority of idiots far outnumbered by police officers who do, but who can hide in the numbers of all the good fans there to enjoy the game and get behind their team.  That does not necessitate the criminalisation of the masses, the kettling of fans, the confiscation of property and aggravation in matches unnecessarily.  I’d argue under those circumstances object throwing and counter-reactions are more rather than less likely.  If fans keep the bampottery beautiful, they should be allowed to do their thing.

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